the incongruous spoon

It’s not just a spoon

People are interesting creatures.  We encode meaning and memory into objects, and frequently project our psyches into tangible things. There are some objects, which elicit the most pure and concentrated memories, laced — like an oatmeal cookie — with nostalgia.  A. and I came upon one such object on a Spring afternoon when we were running errands on foot.

The heat of the day was swelling, but it was still mild enough.  We cut through a shopping center driveway, next to Taco Bell, to get to the crosswalk.  We discussed art, the goings on of the world, and what was next on our list.  In the midst of all our chatter, a shiny object caught my gaze.

There, in the grass median between vast swathes of blacktop, rested a spoon.  It wasn’t just any spoon.  It was one of the ones you buy in airports or curio shops, the kind never meant to touch food.  The edges of it folded into a delicate scalloped edge.  A braid of metal made the handle, and atop the braid stood a keyhole, from which a trolley dangled.  San Francisco scrawled across the top, and also in its concave surface.

Meme.

That was the first thought I had upon seeing this bobble.  You see, my grandmother, being the practical woman she was, collected spoons from the places she visited.  Other people also collected them for her, as folks are wont to do when someone curates a blessed collection of curios and whatnots. What to get Mabel?  Of course, a spoon!

She displayed the spoons in a specially crafted shelf.  They would dangle from their hand-carved notches and behind them rested porcelain creamers from a less manufactured era.  They weren’t her prized possession, but they warmed her heart nonetheless.

I hadn’t thought about Meme’s spoons in years, and now I was on the verge of recalling when I had picked out one for her.  I shared all this with A. as I turned the spoon over in my hands.

“This one’s had a hard life,” I told him as I puzzled over the blemishes in the metal.  “That’s so strange.  I wonder…?”

an aberration

My mind was on the verge of teasing out exactly what had happened to this little kickshaw when A. found the next item in our macabre set.  Perhaps those of you who are more savvy have already conjured all of the possible uses of a spoon, including the sinister ones.  Alas, it took locating the hypodermic needle to fully elucidate its recent history.

This was a heroin spoon.  As in some had used it to cook drugs and shoot up.  Maybe even right there in the parking lot, or as they were driving into the shopping center, chucking it out the window when they were done.

Needy.  Addicted.  Selfish.  Dirty.  Sick.  Disposable.

Was that black tar on my hands? How much residue was left on the surface of the spoon I had just been fondling with all the genial fuzziness of my childhood and shiny goodness of sweet family memories?

“I think you should put that down,” A. calmly instructed me, as if instead of dropping a spoon he was saving me from a rattlesnake.

“Jesus Christ.  Seriously?”  A decorative, commemorative spoon?  Who in the hell does heroin with a trinket like that?  I held my hands away from my body until we could get to the nearest bathroom.  I felt robbed. The world had intersected with the memories of my grandmother in a way I could not have anticipated.  I had a very specific emotional and intellectual meaning wrapped up in “spoon”.  And here was this cruddy little shlock. Scorched from a lighter and pot-marked from a caustic heavy-duty drug.

It was aberrant.  Not only did it not fit, it was incongruent with my reality, and because we intersected, it became part of my experience.  Now “spoon” not only means Meme, summer visits, travel, and gifts, it also means addiction, desperation, disease, and decay.

in the wilds of vermont. or, what is home?

June 2012, Vermont by InkSpot's Blot
June 2012, Vermont, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

Funerals and weddings. These are the rituals that give some shape to life, along with holidays and those quirky events some families invent. These are the things that usually draw those of us who have left back to our hometowns. Except for me. I hadn’t been back home since 1993. There’ve been a few funerals, and quite a few weddings. My own even (never mind the divorce). And all this avoids the obvious. Nearly two decades passed before Meme’s death forced my Mom and I to return home.

Three thousand miles is nothing. Two decades, however, make for some rough travel. Landing in the Burlington Airport was surreal. Meme’s body had arrived hours before us. We were renting a car, and so insisted no one meet us at the Airport. Stepping off the plane, retrieving luggage, taking the shuttle; it all adds up to mundane, something we’ve both done before. Once we turned the rental North on Route 89, the routine flickered and reality peeked around the edges.

The roads were wet from a rainstorm. Color saturated the sky, and the thick clouds sopped it up, too. Green surrounded us, which is actually an understatement. I almost felt like the trees were infusing me with light, trying to counteract the darkness, which was not sadness but nerves. Family was waiting. So was grief.

When we reached St. Albans, Mom drove around town, pointed out the things she remembered. All the while, crazy thoughts were looping in my head. My cousin—who I remember as a kindergartner—is pregnant. The one in elementary school has facial hair and lives with his girl friend. My Aunt and Uncle are gone. My cousin has served umpteen tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hard core tripping.

As the week unfolded, however, some of the awkwardness faded. Many of us faced my grandmother’s funeral together, as a family. It was painfully small. Most of her friends have passed, and there aren’t many of us left either. But we shared memories, our grief. We shared moments under the stars, in the pool, drinking and watching the lightening bugs dot the edge of the forest. It ached. It was wild, and full. And it was home.

Remembering Meme: Dressing Up

Meme always prided herself on her appearance. Up until a few years ago, she was painting her nails the same pearl color she always had, and tucked away in her purse was frosted pink lipstick.

Back in Vermont, she had a decently sized walk in closet, not to mention the bureau, the jewelry case on the bureau (and the one on the shelf that played music), and the whole wall of louvered doors that accordianed open.

She bought her blouses, and of course loved polyester—particularly anything with paisleys (maybe this is from where my offbeat side comes).  The ladies at the fabric store knew her well.  Toting her latest purchases, if she didn’t already have something to match, she’d lay the blouse against one bolt of fabric after another to find just the right shade.  The skirts that resulted were wrap-arounds.  Some tied, others clipped or snapped together.

Aside from pigging out, going to Meme’s house meant reveling in cascading polyester and playing dress up.  She didn’t have any of her dresses from the 40s and 50s (the era of accentuated femininity), but her wrap-around skirts were entertaining enough. And then there was the jewelry. Meme was a huge fan of clip on earrings.  Enameled flowers in lime green with a smattering of rhinestones.  Brooches, necklaces, rings and bracelets.  Her jewelry smelled more like her than her clothes did—more precisely, smelled like Jean Naté and baby powder.

Part of it was the joy of exploration, and the thrill of maybe, possibly being someplace I wasn’t supposed to be, about to find something that was supposed to remain hidden.  The other part of it was simply being a girl.

Remembering Meme: Food

I didn’t have health insurance growing up.  It was too expensive, especially for a single mom trying to make it.  So, when I went back to Vermont to visit, Meme would take me to a pediatrician for an annual check up.  I’m not sure how many times we did that.  I remember one visit, strange and surreal.  Aside from blood tests, jittering reflexes and saying ahhhh (“I remember those tonsils anywhere!”), I also had to look at blobs of ink and tell him of what they reminded me.  There was also the classic picture that could be seen as an old woman and a young woman.  “What do you see?”  “Look again.”

After the doctor’s office, Meme took me to McDonald’s for a treat for being so good.  Time passed, the test results came back.  I had the cholesterol levels of a chain-smoking, meat-eating 40 year old man.  Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I remember it was shameful, atrocious and dangerously high for a child.  For some reason a number near 300 keeps popping into my mind.  No more McDonald’s.

Meme wasn’t known for her dietary restraint.  Even in these last years, she had an army of chocolate, candy, maple syrup, and a host of salty goodies.  Going home to Vermont was always about the treats.  Sneaking into the pantry to grab gobbing spoonfuls of Marshmallow Fluff.  Sometimes the job had to be quicker than a retrieving a spoon would allow.  Those times called for precision finger extractions.  The Fluff would ooze back in to cover my tracks.

I remember other disgusting things I ate back then.  Twinkies, Hoho’s.  Trout from the lake.  At holiday dinners, I was never much for the gizzards, but I had an ungodly craving for the turkey hearts.  I’d pop ‘em in my mouth whole.  Meme would laugh, filled with pleasure that I enjoyed her cooking so much.

Maybe all of this sewed the seeds of my eventual evolution to a vegetarian diet.  With my grandmother, I started developing my understanding of the origins food.  As in NOT from a grocery store.  She had a garden that I’d weed.  The summer harvest usually included some tomatoes, lots of green and yellow beans, peas and corn.  She’d give me a tin can when I was bored and order me to go knock the potato bugs off the plants.  Clang, clang clang into the can.  We’d sit for hours in the kitchen, prepping all of these vegetables for canning, cutting the scraggly ends off the bean, freeing the peas from their shells.  It was our time together.  It was a space were nothing had to be said, we just sat and did, enjoyed the smell of the garden, the summer.

It makes sense to remember Meme through food.  It’s present at every family ritual, even the ones that had not so much to do with a date on the calendar, but the spirit of the season.

Remembering Meme

What are the brightest memories you have of a person?  Not just anyone, but a family member.  A loved one.  I never used to think much about memories.  It’s only been in the last few years memories have hinted to me they exist.  Mischievous creatures pacing below the surface.  Little eruptions.   But these are the unsolicited kind of memories.

People in my life have died before, left before.  My way of coping was to NOT think about them.  If I did, the thought of them would strangle me, draw out the tears.  Then I’d want to hid my face and lock myself in a bathroom.  I know it’s weird.  Crying made me feel flawed.  And feeling made me feel weak.  Not so much anymore.  Now I want to remember.

Now that I want memories, I expected them to be cinematic epics.  The lighting would be hazy and sharp at the same time.  Skin tones would glow as if we were all lit subcutaneously.  The camera angle, from my perspective, would zoom in and out like a Vermont Osprey diving into a lake, and retreating, a fish gleaming in its claws.  And the sequence, that moment in time would unfold slowly, like a lily bloom.

My memories of Meme aren’t happening that way.  The memories are more like still photographs.  To be precise, they are like MY photographs.  I remember the way she used to make her sandwiches for bingo, wrapped in wax paper, cut in half.  I remember her telling me to paint the cellar way with leftover paint, to clean the attic, and weed the garden.  I remember she had good luck charms she’d take with her to bingo and set them out across the top of her stack of cards, and if she was waiting on a number, she’d put her finger on it and chant chant chant for the caller to announce it.  I remember asking her if the moon was following us home.

These are macro shots, and photos snapped at exaggerated angles.  They aren’t that picture of Saint Peter’s you meant to take on your vacation, the sweeping colonnade that could have been a dozen other places.  But because you took it, you were there and present and it’s not only a second, but it’s your second in your story, it has a deeper relevance.  A resonance.

*the photo is of me and my grandmother, Meme, from ages ago.  She died June 17th, 2012.  She has been a constant presence throughout my life.  It seems unreal that she is no longer here.

Visiting Meme – now and then

Meme by InkSpot's Blot
Meme, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

Every summer. Like Swiss clockwork. When I was a kid, I’d go back home to Vermont. We moved to California when I was really young, so I grew up away from family. The only time I reconnected with them was during these summer visits. Or funerals.

I’d stay anywhere from 4-8 weeks at Meme’s house. The house was a hodgepodge affair of a modified barn from at least a generation or two before my grandmother. There was the dry and dusty attic. When I was old enough to reach the ceiling ladder, I’d jump up and down, reaching for the string. It’s strange that the sound of the coils on the hinges stretching would make me so wistful. The basement was the exact opposite. Dark and dank, marble fragments littered the floor. I hated it down there.

Inevitably Meme would have a list of things for me to do when I arrived. Weed the garden, paint the hall, clean the attic, help with canning. I hated it. For a while I did those things for her. One summer I lashed out, argued that I “worked” all year long in school, that this was my rest and I needed a break. I might have said a hateful thing or two. She cracked once, but mostly she wouldn’t have it. “Don’t sass me,” she’d say. Despite her see-saw gimp, one blind eye and a paralyzed elbow, she was not a woman to be crossed. Full of piss and vinegar, so the saying goes.

It turns out now, looking back, all those things that tortured me are the ones I cherish. Time in the garden (even with the potato bugs). Driving home from bingo while she told me that the moon was chasing us. Her grooving out to ABBA when she cleaned the house.

Visiting her is so different now. Instead of a house with land, she has a room. Instead of making bulging egg salad sandwiches and wrapping them in wax paper for Bingo, she gripes not being able to go and cook something in the kitchen. She still has her sass, is overflowing with piss and vinegar, but it’s different now. There’s a hard edge to it, a bitterness that comes with loss. At least that’s my take. It’s so strange to witness someone who was formidable slowly changing as she grows old. Losing autonomy, losing her identity in degrees. And yet so much of her is still there.

She’s reading a birthday card in this picture (she loves her birthday cards and Christmas cards). I liked the lighting in it, and her hand – the story it tells.

slice of life

She talked about her pills again today.  Along with the food at the Board and Care, about Vida going to the Philippines, and Mildred and Anne.

At first I felt agitated, hearing the same things again, some filled with negativity.  Then I mentioned hiking at the ranch yesterday, and her stories changed.

She talked about her purple Duster and how, after she drove Uncle Matt’s Toyota station wagon in ’79, she had to have one of her own.  From then on, she only bought Toyotas.

She talked about the days when she used to cook 30lb turkeys for the holidays, and that Uncle Matt and Aunt Joan would fight over the medallion of dark meat from the hip of the turkey before the potatoes were mashed and the table was set.  “Those were the days,” she said.  There was a trace of sadness, but there was happiness, too.